Internet regulation could become McCarthy witch hunt
by Nick Pickles
The answer to protecting children and copyright is not to censor free speech with crude blacklists, or to routinely invade the privacy of every internet user - claims campaign group
Inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee had a message for Americans yesterday: "Call someone and protest this bill." He was, of course, talking about two pieces of legislation being considered in the US - the PROTECT IP Act, or PIPA, and Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. Wikipedia, Reddit and a host of other websites including Big Brother Watch took the decision to shut down websites in protest at the proposed law. It is not because we support piracy, but because the free flow of information online as we know it is under attack.
These proposals seek to circumvent the judicial processes and tamper with the architecture of the internet, in a way that is both technologically clumsy and seriously threatens free speech. The central part of the legislation would see a blacklist of websites that American internet service providers would be compelled to block. No judge will rule on the proportionality or culpability of the websites concerned, while those referencing which sites have been taken down will find themselves in breach of the law.
Indeed, it is a shame that those in Hollywood most fervently supporting the proposals have forgotten the last time such an extra-judicial blacklist was in operation - under the supervision of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, or HUAC, and Senator Joseph McCarthy. This is not just an issue for the United States. This kind of regulation of the internet, involving state-sanctioned censorship and surveillance of all our online activity is already being called for in the United Kingdom. This is the first salvo in the battle to protect freedom of speech and privacy online on both sides of the Atlantic.
Does more need to be done to combat piracy? Yes. Do content holders need to innovate more? Yes. But is the answer the same kind of state control online that China uses to deny its citizens a free voice? Absolutely not. In parallel - with the copyright lobby there are those in Britain who believe national governments should have much greater powers over online content, whether to suppress content alleged to be against the interests of the UK or "over sexualised" for the eyes of children. The blacklist keeps growing, without any judicial oversight.
In truth, this is only the beginning of the battle.
Even if, as proposed, internet service providers were forced to block anyone trying to visit www.example.com, there are multiple ways of quickly and easily circumventing such a block. Those intent on finding content would continue to do so. This would, however, come at a price. This was recognised by the White House in the statement made by its technical experts. It warned: "Our analysis of the domain name server filtering provisions in some proposed legislation suggests that they pose a real risk to cyber-security and yet leave contraband goods and services accessible online."
When this failure becomes apparent, what then? For some - the solution would be more regulation and more intrusion. Only when every click, keystroke and webpage can be logged and inspected will some of the voices in Hollywood – and, perhaps, our own Home Office - be satisfied that wrongdoers online will be brought to justice. While it may seem far-fetched, it is not beyond comprehension that someone might have made the argument that the data contained in British MPs expenses was subject to crown copyright and, therefore, any site hosting or referring to the data should be blocked to UK households.
There are already laws protecting copyright, laws allowing for the protection of children and laws which make supporting terrorism illegal. The answer to these problems is not to censor free speech with crude blacklists, or to routinely invade the privacy of every internet user. It is a far more complex battle than this legislation suggests. And if we search for a panacea, we will only end up damaging the values that define our free, democratic society.
Nick Pickles is director of the British campaign group Big Brother Watch